Milan vs Inter: Italy’s odd couple who share players and a stadium
On a damp Saturday night, 80,000 expectant fans flock to the leafy, well-heeled western outskirts of Milan, Italy's football and fashion capital. From the outside, the three-tiered San Siro stadium resembles a giant Halloween pumpkin, shafts of white light beaming out through the slits of the six huge spiralling walkways around its perimeter.
Once inside, each end suddenly explodes 10 minutes before kick-off into huge, perfectly choreographed displays of banners, slogans, and colour-coded placards. The whole vibrant spectacle is down to the dedicated work of hundreds of members of the much-maligned Ultras, organised supporters groups, only some of whose members engage in violence.
But tonight they compete in an artistic battle orchestrated with a synchronisation worthy of La Scala, the city's other famous theatre a few kilometres away to the east in Milan's cobblestoned city centre.
The second tier of the Curva Sud (south curve) of the 'home’ side disappears under a red-and-black sea of placards. In a seamless scene-change, an enormous banner unrolls above the crowd, 40 metres by 30, depicting a cartoon scene of Milan stars with the slogan La Storia Infinita – the never-ending story.
The 7,300 'visiting' Inter contingent respond by making the Curva Nord shimmer with hundreds of shiny blue-and-black placards, dotted with the famous bright yellow stars, sported only by teams who have won at least 10 titles.
Then they too unfurl above their heads a huge banner featuring Guiseppe ‘Peppino’ Frisco, one of the club's most popular directors, who died last season. Much loved for his mischievous media comments, the elderly lawyer is shown with his trademark wicked grin and making a vulgar hand gesture.
His message "to the worms in hell” is not lost on Milan’s Diavoli Rossi, the Red Devils. From the Milan end, fireworks shoot into the night sky from the front of the second tier. The whole show is carried off with style and humour, provoking gasps and applause from around the packed stadium, and will lead the evening TV sports bulletins.
Tonight's derby – in Italy the English term is used – has an importance beyond its usual city confines. For the first time in a decade Milan's two teams are simultaneously tilting for the Serie A title. Just one week previously, they had found themselves sharing the very top spot in the table, an event not seen for an astonishing 30 years.
The line-ups feature a string of top Italians – Christian Vieri of Inter and his best friend Filippo ‘Pippo’ Inzaghi of Milan, Gigi di Biagio, Francesco Toldo, Paolo Maldini and his defensive sidekick of 15 years, Alessandro 'Billy’ Costacurta – but on the night this 253rd Milanese derby is won for Milan by a 12th-minute display of Brazilian football geometry.
The gangly Rivaldo threads a flat diagonal pass from the centre circle towards wide player Serginho on the left edge of the Inter box. Inter's Argentinian defender Nelson Vivas, standing in for countryman Javier Zanetti after the latter's midweek international duties, desperately stretches but can't cut out the inch-perfect ball.
With one deft touch the spidery Serginho takes the ball sharply square inside, wrong-footing keeper Francesco Toldo who is shaping to anticipate a burst toward the by-line down the left.
The move ends with a hard grass-cutting shot into the gaping Inter net, and the San Siro erupts with an ear-ringing roar. It is Milan's 97th derby win, now 10 more than Inter. Gate receipts are around €1.4m. The worldwide TV audience runs into tens of millions.
It wasn't always thus.
In the very last days of the 19th Century, a small group of enthusiasts met one evening to establish the Milan Cricket and Football Club. Most football historians quote the date as December 16 1899, but in reality the original document of the club’s founding statute was lost, so the gathering could have been any time between the ninth and the 17th of the month.
There is also doubt over its location. Some accounts refer to the Hotel du Nord in Piazza Repubblica, others locate it at the nearby Bar Fiaschetteria in Via Berchet, which certainly became the regular meeting place. No exact figures exist for the numbers in attendance.
Half a dozen English names featured in the association's original membership and the driving force behind AC Milan was an English textile worker called Herbert Kilpin
But what is not in doubt is the club's English roots. Half a dozen English names featured in the association's original membership and the driving force behind that inaugural meeting of what would later become the mighty Associazione Calcio Milan – AC Milan – was an English textile worker called Herbert Kilpin.
A keen striker, Kilpin – the 29-year-old son of a Nottingham butcher – was the team's first captain, its first club president being one Alfred Edwards. So it was that the final letter 'o' was dropped from Milano to adopt the English spelling.
The club's original pitch was on the site of what is now Stazione Centrale, Milan's main railway station, a huge marble masterpiece of Italy's Fascist era of public works of the 1920s and 1930s.
But the history of the Milan derby is the history of a sporting divorce. The two parties separated over a point of principle without ever coming to blows, then ended up sharing the same home without ever quite kissing and making up. They are football’s odd couple.
The separation came just a little over eight years after that original gathering. A splinter group led by artist Giorgio Muggiani, broke away because it wanted to permit foreigners to play for the side, contrary to Federation regulations.
On March 9 1908 a group of likeminded rebels gathered together at the L'Orologio restaurant in Via Orefici, just a drop-kick away from the famous landmark of the giant Duomo cathedral. And thus was born Internazionale Milano, the new name proudly reflecting the reasons for the divorce.
"The colours they chose for their new kit reflected these early romantic leanings," says Fabio Monti, Inter expert at the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading daily newspaper. “The black was to represent the night, blue for the sky."
It was an idealistic gesture toward the nascent internationalism of the turbulent European politics of the early 20th century. Ironically, after winning their first Scudetto (literally, 'little shield') in 1910, Inter’s first captain Virgilio Fossati was himself later to fall victim to the nationalistic carnage of World War I.
Meanwhile, the design of the club crest produced by those early artistic founders is today ridiculed by Interisti as illegible. Italian football fans are notoriously superstitious. And the birth of Inter produced what must be one of the most eerie ghosts at any football feast.
Barbara Ballardini, 29, who compiled an entire academic thesis on the fans of Inter and Milan, explains: "Historically, AC Milan have experienced lots of ups and downs, with long periods without winning anything. Before the schism that created Inter they had already won three Scudetti, with the latest coming the year before the breakaway.
“But then they entered their longest-ever barren period. Milan had to wait another 44 years before they won their next Scudetto. And that inaugural Inter meeting was attended by 44 founding members." Woo, spooky.
NEXT: Mock funerals and a curious absence of violence